A Nursing Shortage?

What is it with nurses? Are there too few of them, with shortages looming? Or are there plenty to go around? Which is it?

A decade ago, the specter of the baby boom generation approaching old age led to predictions of a looming nursing shortage.

The AMA’s journal weighed in at the end of 2008 with a dire prediction from Dr. Peter Buerhaus, a top workforce analyst. “…A large and prolonged shortage of nurses is expected to hit the US in the latter half of the next decade,” he said.

Now, a few years later, a number of recent studies leave us wondering, well, what’s up with nurses?

Health Affairs in December published a study that surveyed newly licensed registered nurses in 15 states and found that more than half of them practice within 40 miles of where they attend high school. So if you live in an area that doesn’t have a nurse-training facility, are you out of luck?

Well, not according to another study, this one by Rand, the Santa Monica-based think tank. Rand’s study, also released in December, reassures us that “the number of young people becoming registered nurses has grown sharply since 2002…” Rand’s lead author, David Auerbach, goes on to say that if the trend continues, “it will help to ease some of the concerns about future nursing shortages.” According to the Rand release, Auerbach was surprised by the study’s results: “Compared to where nursing supply was just a few years ago, the change is just incredible.”

I called Auerbach to dig a little deeper. He’s authored books on the nursing workforce and painted this picture of why things seem to have changed: “In 2000, projections were that there would be huge shortages. Government stepped in with funding to address the problem, and nursing schools developed more flexible programs for people to return to school and get a degree more quickly. Momentum built and kicked in. We didn’t see the increase till the survey data caught up to reality. We looked at the American Community Survey (U.S. Census) and saw that this is happening. What we said was, if the trend keeps going, we’ll meet demand.”

Auerbach also had this to say:

On the shortage of school nurses: “Subsectors that rely on public funds can’t compete with other sectors. They have to rely on their hearts and not their pocketbooks.” Not a great choice.

On the shortage of nurses in rural communities: “While (the shortage) is worse for doctors, it is an issue for nurses as well. Nurses are in between. They have to go where the openings are, but that’s driven by where health systems and doctors choose to practice.” And as studies have shown, it’s overwhelmingly in urban, not rural, locations.

Is there a nursing shortage? You decide.

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